Sunday, 2 September 2012

Pay-Per-Review - Debbie Bennett

Blogging early this month, if you're wondering why it's me today...

The New York Times recently ran an article online about the morality of paying for a book review. It's generated quite a bit of interest in the online writing communities and in the comments following the article. In fact I'm surprised our own Guardian online hasn't jumped on the bandwagon as it generally has a lot to say about ebook publishing.

In a nutshell, the article concerns a man who made a lot of money matching up authors who wanted "favourable" online reviews for their books with people who were happy to write such reviews - for a fee. Note that I make no mention of books actually being read here - in many cases that seems to be an irrelevant and completely unnecessary part of writing a book review.

Most of the online debate seems to concentrate on the author of the book paying for a review. But nobody has really discussed the other side of the coin - whether it's right for a reviewer to accept payment for a review, favourable or otherwise.

Now I'm sure those of us who review books at least try to read the entire book before we commit fingers to keyboard. Sometimes we don't get all the way through; sometimes it's not our cup of tea, sometimes the book really is unreadable, but we all have our own methods of dealing with such things and coming out with a review that is fair, balanced and reflects the quality of the work. Such is how it should be. In most cases there is always something nice to say, even if the overall effect is less than palatable. But would we accept payment for a review? And if we did, would the review be biased, or be perceived to be biased?

Now here is where the argument starts to break down or at least become more complex. You see I have been paid to write reviews. I'm talking pre-ebooks, before self publishing became at least semi-respectable (I'm sure one day we will achieve complete respectability...) and back in the 1990s when I used to review traditionally published books for a national magazine - the sort you could (and still can) buy in WH Smiths and larger newsagents. There was a book section that carried reviews and my reviews were in there. I was paid £15 per review by the magazine regardless of length and the books came via the person who was the overall editor of the book review pages. I had a choice whether or not to accept the book on offer and while I never actually asked the question, I do wonder that if I had written negative reviews, whether I would have been given any more books.

I don't write bad reviews often. I'm more inclined to skip the book - after all, why would I want to waste my precious time reading a book I'm not enjoying? But I do very occasionally give 2* and 3* reviews on goodreads and amazon, although these are usually for traditionally-published books. Even so, they are, I hope, constructive, fair and balanced reviews. I work on the theory that I myself would not have an issue with a bad review of my books, so long as the reviewer had clearly read the book and at least tried to explain what they didn't like. I have a stunningly bad 1* review on goodreads of which I'm really rather proud - the reader hated my book so much that I'm impressed to have elicited such a strong emotional response.

So is it right to accept payment for a review (other than a free copy of the book)? I'm inclined to say no, but then there are people who clearly make a living out of reviewing things - do the media critics who review theatre and films for the Guardian or the Sunday Times really not get paid? Or is the issue actually with the person who pays - it's an acceptable practice as long as it isn't the author who is paying? Maybe the problem is in the soliciting of the review, rather than the writing.

Amazon and other online review sites are already losing credibility. Too many 5* reviews from friends and family, too many 1* reviews from competitors or people with an axe to grind. At some point, it will blow up in our faces as indie authors. Maybe we really do need to be pushing the independent review sites like Indie Ebook Review and others.


8 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Good overview of a complex subject. I too have been paid for reviews by Scots Magazine. Admittedly not a lot but it was payment nevertheless. However, I don't think there should be payment involved for reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or any of these sites. It's probably OK for magazines to pay because that is content for their publication and isn't actually the author paying for the review.

Jan Needle said...

i used to review kids' books for the guardian - for money, naturally - but stopped when i realised i'd have to say bad things about some books. not my bag at all. there was no suggestion from the guardian they wanted me to be nice about anything, so that was fine. i just stopped and lost the money.

i've also wasted vast numbers of pounds over the years buying books on the strength of cover quotes by extremely well-thought of writers who turned out to be saying nice things about their chums and promoting crap. ditto buying booker prize winners, only one of which i've ever managed to enjoy.

it's a problem, isn't it? and i don't think there's an answer. my favourite book puff is on the back cover of my own wagstaffe the wind-up boy. it reads: This is the most disgusting book I have ever read. Please buy it - we need the money. Jan's mum. she was mortified when i used it!

Dennis Hamley said...

Nice one, Jan.

I was paid fairly well and monthly for some years for reviewing both educational books and fiction for the TES. I had no crisis of conscience about it. I just wish it hadn't stopped. I reviewed fairly (when writing education books you have to anyway because teachers bought books on my recommendation and I certainly wasn't in the business of peddling rubbish to schools to please publishers), took great pains over it and sometimes thought I was worth a lot more than they actually paid me. Of course I was never paid by the School Librarian, Carousel and (still) Armadillo, but then I wouldn't want to be. The reward of possessing the book was enough, although I gave most to schools and only kept those I really valued. Most of the time if I didn't like the look of a book I didn't review it, though when Carousel send a quarterly packing case and ask the reviewer to choose six, some good books aren't reviewed which probably should be. For the thirty-odd years I reviewed for the SL I only wrote two really damning reviews because both books, for different reasons, really offended me and I thought people should know. The first review was published and I spent some weeks half-expecting a libel suit. The other, significantly, was written by a very well known, extremely successful writer of adult novels who, when he or she sticks to his or her last, is very, very good and writes books I normally love. But the one children's book he or she wrote was, I thought, so bad and wrongheaded that I wrote a real stinker. It wasn't published. Were they afraid of trouble? It must have worked though because, so far anyway, that author hasn't tried another.

I've talked to quite a lot of writers lately, some once well-established but now on hard times and others starting out, about Indie ebooks and have told them of the possible prize of reviews on IEBR. They are very interested but understand that they couldn't all receive the accolade. IEBR will expand, I think, into something vey significant as an essential item.

Katherine Roberts said...

I think there's an important difference between a literary review and a personal opinion... a line which has become blurred in recent years, now that everyone has a blog and can post on websites such as Goodreads.

It's perfectly possible to write a fair review of a book that you personally hate, picking out the good bits and identifying the type of readers who might love it. But a personal opinion is quite a different thing.

If someone has been given a free copy to review, I think they should approach it in a professional manner, and keep their personal opinions for those books they have actually paid for and were disappointed by.

julia jones said...

Of course people should be paid for reviewing in newspapers magazines etc if they have been hired to do so. It's no different from writing the football commentary or a leader column. Sometimes the paper will use its staff writers (the literary editor, for instance) sometimes it chooses freelances - because they have something to say. Newspapers are businesses, they print what they think will interest their readers. Amazon is also a business but only in certain areas. In other areas its attempting (for commerciela reasons) to be a commuity. I think of the reviews as school gate gossip. If only people did talk about books in public surely the same thing would happen? We'd praise our friends because we approach their books wanting to like them. There are emotions involved which shouldn't be the case with a professional reviewer writing as per request. The most reputable professional reviewers that I know won't accept books by close friends and it's though to be bad form if a literary editor sends a book for reivewer to a known rival.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Absolutely right, Julia. In fact I'm working on a paid review for a Scottish literary magazine, even as I write this. I know of the writer, but I don't know her as a friend, and I was asked if I wanted to review the novel for various reasons to do with the subject matter. Mind you, I would also be happy to review work by friends - and have done it in the past - for money - on the understanding that I had read the book and genuinely saw something interesting in it. (Scotland is such a small literary pond that we DO tend to know each other) And I assume that all those who write reviews for newspapers and mags are and should be paid.What I DIDN'T know until quite recently (although I've reviewed on and off for years) was that many professional reviewers especially male reviewers, will send literary editors lists of books they want to review. I've seen this cited as one of the reasons why fiction by women, with by far the biggest sales, is so seldom reviewed in newspapers and magazines. (Somebody has collated the stats and it's horribly true!)
Jan is quite right, though, that the various literary cliques will review each other for money, sometimes unquestioningly, and nobody takes them to task for it. I've said this elsewhere, but one remedy might be get rid of the star system altogether, on Amazon and on Goodreads. I've never been asked to rate a professionally reviewed book according to some kind of star system, and I would never agree to do it. It might at least prompt reviewers to think about what they were writing, instead of thoughtlessly clicking on stars.

Enid Richemont said...

Dennis - did you ever review me in my glory days? Just curious.
Catherine - might you take a look at my children's (back) book list?
To everyone - I now have nine out of print children's books out on Kindle (one of them on Kobo too). I've put a flyer with their (wonderful) cover images into Dropbox promo. Use it as you will, and I'll return the compliment.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I will! (But have to get a book out first...)